Voices in Education

Five Myths About the Common Core State Standards
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 27, number 5). Copyright 2011 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

The Common Core State Standards are one of the most significant initiatives in American education in decades. Yet the swiftness with which they were developed and adopted has left educators uncertain about exactly what they are. A number of myths about the standards have emerged.

Myth #1 The Common Core State Standards are a national curriculum.
Americans have long had a leery view of a national curriculum, but the Common Core State Standards do not create this scenario. Standards are not curriculum: standards spell out what students should know and be able to do at the end of a year; curriculum defines the specific course of study—the scope and sequence—that will enable students to meet standards. There are many possible curricula schools could use that would lead students to the Common Core State Standards.

For example, one of the Common Core standards for English language arts in grade 5 states: “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” This standard does not spell out how teachers will teach students to “read and comprehend literature.” Nor does it indicate which texts to use. The standards document includes a number of suggested texts that are of appropriate complexity (in grades 4 and 5, these include Antoine St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” and Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball), but these are meant to be examples, not a reading list.

Myth #2 The Common Core State Standards are an Obama administration initiative.
The Obama administration is a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards initiative, but the administration did not lead it. The initiative was, and continues to be, state-led.

No federal official was on the work teams and feedback groups that developed the standards. Then, once the standards were released, forty-five states and the District of Columbia—each acting on its own—chose to adopt the standards.

The Obama administration clearly supported the effort. In its Race to the Top program—a $4.3 billion competitive grant program that awarded funds to states that pledged reforms in four key areas—the administration awarded 40 points out of a possible 500 to states that adopted “a common set of K-12 standards” which were internationally benchmarked and that prepared students for colleges and careers-- such as the Common Core State Standards. States could conceivably have won the grants without adopting the Common Core standards specifically. In February 2010, President Obama said he might tie funds from the federal Title I program to adoption of the Common Core standards, but the administration never followed up on that plan. The administration provided incentives but did not force states to adopt the standards.

The administration did provide $330 million to two state consortia to develop assessments to measure the Common Core standards, but these funds support development. States are building the assessments, and once the assessments are in place, they will be administered and operated by states. They are not federal tests.

Myth #3 The Common Core standards represent a modest change from current practice.
In preparation for adoption of the Common Core standards, several states conducted analyses that found considerable alignment between them and their current standards. Yet while the content of the two sets of standards is similar, the level of knowledge and skills the Common Core calls for is in many respects quite different from what current standards expect and what schools currently practice.

Take English language arts. Perhaps the main idea of the Common Core ELA standards is the notion that students should read increasingly complex texts in order to be prepared for the reading they will do in postsecondary education. Yet research the standards-writers relied upon showed that the complexity of texts assigned in high school has actually declined over time, while the reading requirements of entry-level college courses have increased. The Common Core Standards raise the expectations for text complexity considerably.

Myth #4 States cannot implement the Common Core standards in the current budget climate.
Implementing the Common Core standards, which involves revising assessments, developing curriculum materials, providing professional development and tools for teachers, and other tasks, will cost money. And officials in 76 percent of districts in Common Core states said in a survey released in September 2011 by the Center on Education Policy that inadequate funds for implementation was a major challenge.
Yet the survey also found that 80 percent of districts had efforts to implement the standards under way or planned for 2011–2012. And more activities are likely once the assessments to measure the standards are in place.

Myth #5 The Common Core State Standards will transform schools.
Advocates have high hopes for the Common Core State Standards. They believe that a common set of expectations that are geared toward what students need to know to succeed after high school and that are benchmarked to the expectations of high-performing countries will lead to substantial improvements in student learning.

Yet even the most passionate advocate of standards will acknowledge that standards, by themselves, do not improve education. Standards can do a great deal: they can set clear goals for learning for students and teachers, and establish guidelines for instruction and performance. But to have an effect on the day-to-day interaction between students and teachers, and thus improve learning, states and districts will have to implement the standards. That will require changes in curricula and assessments to align with the standards, professional development to ensure that teachers know what they are expected to teach, and ultimately, changes in teacher education so that all teachers have the capability to teach all students to the standards. The standards are only the first step on the road to higher levels of learning.

About the Author: Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).